In a story inspired by the episode 'Remember Nothing' and the wonderful fan fiction 'Nothing ventured, Nothing gained' by Tonya Muir (who I can sadly no longer thank), Xena finds Gabrielle as a bitter slave with a troubled life, and must avoid fighting at all costs while finding a way to put things right for herself and her friend. Ultimately, for Xena, there is only one option.
I did not write the series on which this story is based and have no ownership over the characters or locations herein. I just write for pleasure. Feedback always warmly welcomed and responded to at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you enjoy!
Xena hadn't meant any harm. Her mother had always told her, back when she was a defiant child, not to lie. 'You never know where a lie will take you,' Cyrene had insisted, busily drying goblets with a cloth. One untruth would lead to another, one simple deception would change everything. Xena had meant only to save Lyceus: to give her brother another chance, to give herself a second opportunity to live simply and peacefully in Amphipolis, to avoid all those mistakes…
She should have known better. Nothing happens in isolation. Her joy at having her family around her once more came at too high a price. "That one." Xena indicated with a nod. "I'll buy that one."
"Well well! Now let me see." Krykus was an ugly, spoilt creature, and the sight of him brought bile to the back of Xena's throat. All around them, people worked and bustled. Krykus' men sauntered around, chatting, exchanging weapons, giving orders. Krykus' slaves hurried around, intent on their chores, keeping to themselves. There was an air of expectancy, as carts were loaded and huts cleared. "She is a lively one, a good workhorse." Krykus crossed thick arms over his chest, all smug arrogance. "I'm not sure she's for sale."
"You name your price." Xena didn't flinch. This wasn't a battle she had the option of losing. In this life, attired in long dress sown from rough red fabric and wearing sandals on her feet, fighting wasn't one of her many skills. If dinars were their common language, so be it.
"I see you are keen." The warlord nodded approvingly, hands moving to rest on the hilt of his sword. He looked around for his slave. "You! Girl! Come here."
The blonde woman looked up from her work, her hands releasing their grip on the barrel she had been rolling toward a wagon. After a moment's hesitation, she wiped her hands on the torn skirt which reached her ankles and approached Krykus.
Xena watched, breathing and blinking forgotten. Gabrielle was recognisable to her in any life, even with untidy, wavy hair, ragged clothes, and hands marked with grime. Her lips formed a grim line against skin too pale, and her eyes were greyish and uncharacteristically dull. Xena had tried more than once to free her, to convince her to follow, to offer her protection, but Gabrielle, confused and defiant, had refused.
"This woman wants you to work for her, Sweet Thing," Krykus jeered. "She's going to offer me a fair price, I'm sure, so you look lively." Behind the unpleasant smile his voice was threatening. Gabrielle, however, hardly seemed to hear it. Her head was bowed but her eyes were fixed on Xena; questioning, fearful, and still holding the anger that always seemed to be there now. Xena gave her a small smile, and watched the eyes track down to the ground and settle there.
The warlord turned his attention back to Xena. She was an unlikely business partner, to be sure, but a dinar was a dinar, no matter its source. "As you see, she is young and strong, although she's a handful, needs to be reminded of her place."
Xena's jaw tightened: she had seen the raised scarring across Gabrielle's shoulders. "I'm sure I can handle it."
"What will you give me?"
"A hundred dinars."
Beside Krykus, Gabrielle drew in a breath; no one had ever considered her worth that much. "A hundred fifty," Krykus countered, secretly scoffing at the inability of womankind to trade for anything more than vegetables at a market stall.
A slow nod. "Well, I do set off for Tripoly in the morning, and she would just take up space and eat the supplies. Agreed." He clasped hands with Xena.
"Good. C'mon, Gabrielle, let's go." The taller woman reached out for her friend.
"Ut-uh..." Krykus held up a hand, a big gold sovereign ring on his finger. Gabrielle looked at him. "We mustn't break with tradition. Must we, Sweet Thing?" He turned to his slave, whose eyes came up to his for just an instant before dropping back to her scuffed boots. The warlord smiled at Xena, putting on a show of having all the charm and civility that he lacked. "You shall have her three marks after sunrise tomorrow, here. Bring your money." He turned and strode off, thumbs tucked into his belt.
Under Xena's sandals, the dust swirled. "Gabrielle?" The girl stood where she was but didn't raise her head. "I'll be here, first thing," Xena promised, groping for some way to make contact with her friend, to reassure her. Usually it would be so easy – a smile, an arm, an extra hunk of nutbread – Xena was always amazed by how little effort was required on her part to reach Gabrielle. Now, it felt like nothing could.
"And you want me to be grateful?" Those familiar greenish eyes were cold and distanced.
"I said I'd help you -"
"You didn't say you'd buy me."
Xena held out her hands appealingly. The harder she tried to make it better, the more the smaller woman seemed to resent her. "Gabrielle, it was the only way, don't you see that?"
Across the clearing, Krykus called for his slave, impatient. Dark and angry, Gabrielle held Xena's gaze for an uncomfortably long moment then turned and didn't look back.
Xena had watched until they were out of sight, and then gone home to wait for sunrise. She fretted all night, wondering if Krykus would be good to his word. She should've realised that the thought of a hundred and fifty dinars would bring him back.
"Here!" The warlord slapped the thick rope into Xena's hand. It was tied securely around Gabrielle's wrists and looped around her neck. She stood obediently, but her defiance was written in her expression; Xena was relieved just a little that her friend's spirit was no more easily broken in this life than in the other. "She's no use to me now. More trouble than reward, this one, nearly got away just this morning." He snarled in Gabrielle's direction then gave Xena a grudging nod. "Good trading with you." He snatched up his money and went.
This was no small victory to the former Warrior Princess, and she had to press down the excitement that came up in her. Forcing herself to keep a light hold on the rope until they were out of sight, she led a trailing Gabrielle toward Argo, who was waiting around a bend in the road. "Let's get out of here." She didn't care to see the camp or its inhabitants again. When they reached Argo it felt safe to pause and relax just a little. "Here, give me your hands." She hastily untied the rope and slung it away in disgust.
"What are you doing?" Apparently genuinely confused, Gabrielle rubbed at her arms, the skin dry and reddened under the tattered sky blue sleeves.
"What am I doing?" Xena repeated, her attention on gathering Argo's reigns. The horse stood patiently, nibbling at a tree.
"I could run away," Gabrielle reasoned, disbelieving. She stared at Argo, pulling back a little when the large horse inquisitively sniffed at her.
Xena scowled. "Why would you run away from me? Now come on, let's go, it's not safe. It'll be warmer at my home."
The blonde woman glanced anxiously around her. She looked like someone who not only didn't know what action to take next, but worse, didn't know what her options were or what each choice could lead to. She seemed bewildered. "Is it a long walk?"
"Walk?" Xena made sure Argo's saddle was tight, then returned her attention to her companion. "Don't know, I've never tried it." She shrugged. "C'mon, get up -" She patted the horse and held out an arm to help.
Gabrielle blinked, taken aback, and stared at Argo as if she were some alien creature. "I can't ride, I've never…" Her words trailed off and she looked back to Xena.
Xena knew she should've anticipated that, but she hadn't, and coming out of the blue it was a shock. "All right." There was no point in worrying over something that couldn't be changed. "All right, it's easy, just put your foot up here…" She indicated the stirrup and guided a reluctant Gabrielle's boot into it. "Now pull yourself up, that's it." She shoved at her friend until she seemed to be in about the right place. "Swing your leg across? There y'go." At least Gabrielle wasn't resisting, although Xena thought that was largely due to shock. Rather in a hurry to leave, the warrior tugged the scuffed tan boot out of the stirrup and replaced it with her own.
In the saddle, the smaller woman looked uncomfortable in the extreme, and she clung onto the sturdy leather, her eyes widening every time Argo shifted. "You gotta hold on tight, Gabrielle, okay?" Xena reached around her riding partner for the reigns, gathering them up into her hands. With Gabrielle in front of her at least she could hold onto and steady her if necessary. It was how they would ride when she was teaching the bard, except that then Gabrielle was relaxed in her arms, frequently turning back to make eye contact and chattering constantly. Now, there was only silence. What reassurance Xena tried to give was apparently ignored, so she could only try to keep Argo slow and steady and get them home as soon as possible.
In this life Xena was a simple village woman, but her family home was comfortable. Once there she slid easily off her horse then beckoned for Gabrielle to follow. "C'mon -" Giving what she hoped was an encouraging smile, she reached up, ready to lift Gabrielle down. "I've got you." Gabrielle didn't look too enthusiastic, but it was the only way off the horse. Xena got a good hold under her arms and pulled her down. Silent, the girl shook her off as soon as her feet were on the ground.
Xena knew she had to accept that winning Gabrielle over would take time: she had to be patient. She led the girl inside, holding the heavy wooden door open for her. Gabrielle looked around. "Why are you doing this?" She asked, her eyes moving over the warm old furnishings.
"Doing what?" Xena quickly gathered up some items: a dish, a wineskin and cloth, food and a blanket. It was none too warm outside, especially after the ride, and Gabrielle's arms had felt chilled in their short sleeves.
The younger woman was used to being in buildings far more impressive than this one, from palaces to castles, but they were never her own. This small and simple place felt by far the most homely, and it reminded Gabrielle just a little of a tiny farmhouse in Poteidaia, no doubt oceans away from here. "There are plenty of other slaves around who are stronger and more obedient than me," She answered Xena's question. "I saw how much you paid Krykus. People think I'm like an animal, but I can understand things: I know the value of money." Back on that farm, an age ago, Gabrielle had sometimes been paid a coin or two by her parents for helping in the yard, or feeding the chickens. She hadn't earned a single dinar in the years since she'd left, despite the long hours and the hardships of the labour.
Xena studied the girl, her fingers absentmindedly playing with the cloth in her hand. Gabrielle would never believe the truth, not yet; she would interpret it as a lie, and it would send her running. "I've been talking to people. You're clever, Gabrielle, and you know this town. You're not afraid. There's something I have to do, and I need your help." It wasn't entirely a deception; Xena needed to sweet talk the Fates, and Gabrielle was the bard, not she.
The blonde woman accepted that. She had heard similar stories: slaves who had been used as fodder in battles, pawns in games, scapegoats in frauds, and so on. It wasn't likely to be a pleasant end, but at least it was an end. "What do you want me to call you?" She had learned early on not to address a master by anything which might offend them.
The warrior chided herself for not thinking to say. "My name is Xena. Now come and sit down, get warm." She led Gabrielle to a cushioned area on a rug by the fire. She noticed that her friend moved a little stiffly: perhaps she was just tense. "Sit down, that's it, yeah." Xena squatted too. "You hungry?" Gabrielle looked at her, confused, her hands pressed to the material underneath her. "Course y'are. Here." Xena handed her a wooden dish of fresh nutbread, a few berries and seeds, and poured a mug of wine. Her guest looked between her and the food in her hands, the likes of which she hadn't tasted for many years. "Go ahead," Xena encouraged, "It's all yours."
Gabrielle hesitated a moment longer, then abandoned caution and ate. Her eyes closed as she dug her teeth into the sweet, soft bread she loved, and she gathered the small red berries into her fingers ready for the next mouthful. Xena watched her patiently, pleased to see her enjoying this small pleasure, but, in a deeper part of her, anguished with guilt over the suffering she had caused.
It wasn't until Gabrielle had emptied her mug that she seemed to remember where she was. "Thank you." She quietly set her dish down. "What do you want me to do for you?"
Xena shook her head. "First thing's first. Let me see to this shoulder of yours. If we keep it clean it won't scar too badly." Gabrielle had showed her the vicious wound the first time they met in this life – her reward for trying to escape from Krycus – and the image hadn't left Xena's mind since. She untied a small leather pouch of herbs and shook some into the dish of water, stirring the mixture with the cloth.
Gabrielle promptly covered herself with a hand. "It's okay, it's not bad."
"It will be if it gets infected. Here, let me look." Xena moved to ease away the thin blue material, but Gabrielle was clearly fearful, and pulled back. "You don't need to waste your supplies on me. I'm strong, I can work. Just tell me my duties and I can get started."
The warrior's heart seemed to give a twist in her chest. She knew Gabrielle so well, and yet this woman was a stranger. "Gabrielle, I'm not going to treat you like a slave."
"That's what I am," Gabrielle replied, matter of fact.
"Well not anymore." Thinking about that just made Xena angry, and that was the last emotion they needed right now. She shifted her feet out from under her and sat, so as to be at Gabrielle's level. "You must be in pain with this, Gabrielle. I can help. Just relax, hmm?" Consciously keeping her voice quiet and soothing, Xena slowly eased her fingers under the girl's hands and untied the blue cord of her shirt. "There, good. We'll get you some warmer clothes, it's too cold for these now." Gabrielle just stared at the older woman, frozen as if in some kind of shock. The skin on her arms was pale and cool, bruised and scratched here and there from her work.
When Xena slid the material off of the shoulder closest to her, Gabrielle clutched it up and held it to her breast. The warrior paused. "It's all right…" She read alarm in the green eyes that locked with hers, sensed the pick up in breathing and heart rate. "It's okay. Just let me see your shoulder." She freed her hands and gingerly pushed back the material. Gabrielle didn't move. "Yeah, it's not too deep, hmm?" She wrung out the cloth and gently wiped it around the edges of the weal, which had clearly been caused by a whip blow so hard it had split the skin. She had seen far worse wounds, but not on her best friend, not on Gabrielle. The girl watched her wordlessly, but she did lift her chin a little to make room for Xena's hands. The warrior tried to make conversation. "What would you most like to do, Gabrielle? Would you like to go home?"
Gabrielle seemed to become alert, then. "To Poteidaia?" She hadn't thought about her village seriously for a long time: there was no point, masters didn't grant vacations to their slaves. "I would like to know that my parents are okay," She allowed herself to daydream, the quiet and warmth forcing her to relax, just a little. She gazed across at the hearty fire, its shifting flames flicking orange glow across her white shins.
"Sure," Xena agreed, smiling. "And your sister, I bet you'd like to see her again." Gabrielle immediately tensed, and Xena knew she'd made a mistake.
"My sister's dead." When Gabrielle looked back there was anger behind blank eyes. "She put up a fight when Krykus came to our village." A little shrug. "And she paid the price."
"Oh, Gabrielle…" Xena's regrets stacked up another notch higher. She knew how much her friend loved her younger sister. "I'm so…"
"She's better off," Gabrielle told her determinedly. "At least she's safe now."
Xena just didn't know what to say, and so worked in silence until the wound was dry and clean. Gabrielle hadn't flinched the whole time, although it must have smarted, and now her eyes were hard and unreadable as she gazed ahead of her. "That'll heal, Gabrielle, it won't leave much of a mark."
Gabrielle moved to pull her top back around her, but the manoeuvre required that she slip the material down her arm a little, and the colouration of the skin there caught Xena's attention. "What's this?"
"What?" Gabrielle tried to ignore her.
"This, on your arm." Taking no notice of the deliberately obstructive hands, Xena uncovered the dark bruise that wrapped itself around Gabrielle's upper arm.
"Oh, it's nothing," The girl tried to brush Xena off, with absolutely no success.
"This was made by a hand -" Xena recognised the characteristic size and finger markings of a bruise made by a too-tight hand grip. "Who did this?" Gabrielle didn't answer. "Are there more of these?" The warrior pushed Gabrielle's sleeve up from her elbow and revealed an identical mark there. The bruising was recent, too, having not yet taken on the yellowish colour of a fading injury. "What's going on?" Negotiating the hands Gabrielle now had pressed protectively to her chest, Xena reached over and lifted the other sleeve. Small scratches and grazes marked her skin – simply the result of a hard life - but there were fresher wounds too, their edges still congealing with blood. "They're all over you…" Frightened, Xena took the youthful face between her hands. "Gabrielle, who did this to you?"
Gabrielle's expression held none of the tenderness that her friend was used to, nor fear or gratitude: nothing. She lifted her head from the hands and returned her gaze to the fire. "Don't pretend like you don't know."
"I don't know," Xena told her, exasperated and helpless. "What is it?"
"You left me," Gabrielle accused bitterly, "You left me with Krykus, last night. Your unspoken agreement." She nodded knowingly, her expression suggesting she felt nauseated. "All you had to do was say no." She stopped abruptly, remembering herself. "But then it's your money, so it's your choice."
"Wait, I don't understand," Xena insisted. "What happened last night?" Perhaps it was just that her mind refused to understand, refused to let in the full horror of all this.
Gabrielle shook her head, smiling unpleasantly. "A slave is worth more when she's pure. Spoilt goods fetch a lower price." She gave a small shrug of surrender and looked down to her arms. "But as you'd already agreed to Krykus' price he had nothing to lose."
Xena caught on suddenly and bile rose up in her throat. "He raped you…" Her heart beat began to thud painfully in her head and a cold tingling spread to her fingers.
Another shrug. "It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last."
This dreadful new reality threatened to engulf Xena, to wash over her and resurrect The Destroyer of Nations, to stir in her a vengeful animal who wanted nothing other than to kill. She damned herself for not thinking through her decisions. She was no longer a teenager with no responsibilities. "This is all my fault."
"Yes," Was all Gabrielle said. She didn't sound angry, she was just confirming a fact,
"Sweetheart, I'm so sorry…"
"It wasn't your responsibility. That's the way the world is."
Xena knew she had to get on, had to keep busy: if she thought about this right now she would be paralysed by it. The misery and hatred had to be pushed down, buried inside of her, until it was safe to release it. When she could she would have to go outside, be alone, find somewhere private. She would spar until her hands stung, run until her legs seized, swim until her lungs ached: anything to work off a little of this rage.
"These cuts need some balm. Take this off, I'll bathe them for you." Xena indicated the blue material.
"No!" Gabrielle clutched the fabric around her. For the first time quiet hostility was replaced by quiet fear.
"I'll help you," Xena promised softly, "I just want to help you." It was hard to remember that this woman didn't know and trust her implicitly, as the real Gabrielle did. She would have spilled out her feelings in endless chatter, would have cuddled into Xena's arms seeking reassurance. It was much easier than this. "Listen to me, Gabrielle. I won't hurt you, I won't. You have to trust me. Try to trust me." She touched at a raised pink line over the girl's collar bone. "Have you got these all over you?"
"He had a lot of energy." Gabrielle replied.
"Yeah." Xena took that as an answer in the affirmative. "So let me look, hmm? Here, you can cover yourself…" She grabbed a throw from the chair behind her and pulled it down, giving it to Gabrielle. "Can I see your back? It's all right, yeah, s'okay." Moving slowly and speaking so softly as to be hypnotic, Xena eased the thin blue material off of her friend's body, leaving her to hold the blanket to her chest. Gabrielle swallowed repeatedly, her eyes darting around like a caged animal, but at least she wasn't lashing out or trying to run. "That's it. Oh, it's not so bad," Xena lied, and ran her hand gently across the reddened back. She carefully tended to the pathways the whip had made, holding unbrushed blonde hair out of her way. She longed to hold Gabrielle, to do something more to comfort her, but she knew she had to restrain herself.
"Now what about your chest?" Xena moved back to where Gabrielle could see her, and the girl turned her head, meeting blue eyes. "Lemmie see. Lie down, Gabrielle, lie down…" She repositioned the cushions and waited for the smaller woman to slowly rest back. Gabrielle said nothing and complied with the instructions she was given, but whether it was through the beginnings of trust or simple shock Xena didn't know. "It's gonna be fine. Let go…"
With infinite tenderness Xena uncurled the cold fingers from the blanket and pushed it aside. In a semi-sitting position, Gabrielle's chest heaved with rapid breaths that she tried to stifle. Some of the markings on her pink skin were new, many were older. Xena instinctively squeezed the arm closest to her, wanting to show sympathy but finding herself unable to speak. It was getting harder to keep control.
"It's really not important," Gabrielle said as if she believed it.
"It is to me," Xena confided. The girl just looked at her, frowning slightly. "Did…" Xena found that her voice broke, and she had to cough and try again. "Did he hurt you?" The room was silent except for the crackles of the fire, and in that moment it felt like no one else existed on the Earth.
"No." Gabrielle understood what she meant, and Xena exhaled, having been holding her breath. "You only get hurt if you fight. Like Lila. Just let them get on with it." Surprising Xena, she unfastened her skirt under the blanket and discarded it, positioning the thick red material so it nestled between her legs, covering her but exposing a couple of marks on her thighs. "I don't fight anymore."
The warrior nodded slowly, then remembered herself and dipped the cloth back into the water. She moved to begin, but Gabrielle took the cloth from her. "I can do it." Her tone was neither hostile nor defensive, and Xena watched as she washed herself, hopeful that she'd made some small progress. When Gabrielle was done she handed back the cloth with the slightest of smiles. "Thanks."
"You look tired." It was only a little after mid-day, but the morning had been a stressful one, and now that she'd finally relaxed Gabrielle's eyes had grown heavy.
The girl opened her mouth to protest, but then seemed to think better of it. "I suppose, I…"
"Then you need to sleep, Gabrielle," Xena told her kindly, and reached for the clothes she had brought. "I'm sorry if this is too big, you're not quite my size. It'll do, though." She selected a shift, old but cosy, and guided it over Gabrielle's head and down her body. The girl said nothing as she was helped up, and she followed Xena through into a small room. Colourful old throws hung on the walls, and in the centre was a bed carved from a dark wood.
In bare feet, Gabrielle gazed around her in no small degree of wonderment. "Is this your room?"
Xena smiled. It had been her bedroom when she was a child, and her childhood belongings were still dotted around: a couple of ragged dolls on a shelf, an old stuffed bear on the window ledge. The room was basic, but wonderfully familiar. Xena's family hadn't much money when she was young, probably even less than Gabrielle's, where at least there were two working parents to support their two children. Xena's mother had to tend to her three offspring alone. The warrior knew that her friend had liked to pretend to be a princess when she was a child, she had told her about liking pink material and pretty dresses. In that way she had given up more than Xena in choosing their life together on the road. This wasn't a princess' room, but it would do.
Xena looked down at Gabrielle. "No, it's your room." She gestured to the bed.
Gabrielle took on a look of shock, and shook her head. "I can sleep on the floor -"
Xena was actually amused by that. "You are not sleeping on the floor."
Gabrielle turned back, looking up at Xena with such apparent confusion that the warrior wondered if she was going to turn and run like a frightened animal. The smaller woman shook her head slightly. Xena reached out for her instinctively, not sure what she was going to do. Gabrielle's head went back and she dropped so abruptly that Xena only just managed to clumsily grab at her and catch her around the waist. Unconscious she was a dead weight, and Xena felt her muscles protesting as she stooped down to grab hold under Gabrielle's legs and scoop her up. The girl had just worked too hard and gone through too much, Xena thought with enormous regret. She shifted the familiar weight in her arms and carried her over to the bed, setting her down on it.
Xena leaned over the girl to settle her limbs comfortably, pausing when Gabrielle gave the most alarming choking sound. Startled, Xena looked down. Under her, Gabrielle's muscles tightened suddenly, pulled painfully tight, stiffening her arms and legs. Her brow furrowed into a frown, breath forced itself noisily from her lungs, then the convulsion took hold in earnest, arching her back and causing her limbs to twitch fiercely.
"Oh, no, Gabrielle," Xena lowered herself to sit on the bed. "Not here too." She watched in a sort of paralysed panic. Such states were something the other Gabrielle was prone to, although Xena had only witnessed it once or twice. It seemed to come with the gift of prophecy which the bard possessed. It never failed to upset Xena. "You're going to be fine," Xena tried. Fighting the instinct to pick her friend up and restrain her, she tried to push back lank blonde hair, wanting to offer some comfort. "It's all right." It was the worst Xena had ever seen her, and she didn't know what to do. Cheeks which had first flushed red were now waxy and devoid of colour. Saliva drained from her mouth as she fought to breathe, turning to froth as it passed across her lips. What air she managed to pull in sounded wet and gurgly in her chest. "Oh -" Xena tried to wipe her face dry. "I'm here -" She ran her thumb over lips that were turning blue.
"Gabrielle, that's enough." Xena leaned over the fevered woman, taking her face gently in her hands, trying to protect her head. "Stop this now." She spoke close to Gabrielle's ear. "Enough, Gabrielle." The deceptively strong body pushed up under her, and a knee jabbed into her side. "Look, please," Xena stroked the hair under her hands, desperate. "You're frightening me. Hush now, Gabrielle, come on." She held Gabrielle as best she could, and after a moment pale arms reached out for her, resting around her shoulders. Xena allowed herself a smile as Gabrielle finally relaxed. "You're a good girl." She caught the slender wrists at the back of her neck and set Gabrielle's hands on her body.
The younger woman breathed deeply but easily, and colour returned to her face. Xena smoothed down her shift then pulled the covers over her, lifting her head to settle the pillow under it. After some moments Gabrielle blinked and slowly looked around her. "Where… where am I?" Xena had nestled the small hand into her own, but Gabrielle pulled it away to rub at her forehead.
"You're safe," Xena answered her. "Go back to sleep."
Gabrielle felt at the shift and the blankets over her, assessing her situation. "Did I…?"
"Yes," Xena told her honestly, wanting to give physical comfort but not sure if it was the right thing to do.
"I'm sorry, I…"
"I'm not weak," Gabrielle insisted, trying to sit up. "I'm not. Don't think I'm weak…"
"No, no -" Appalled, Xena took her arms and gently pushed her back down. "I don't think that, I don't." Gabrielle lay down and regarded Xena warily. "You're just tense, you need to rest."
At length Gabrielle nodded. "I'd like to be left alone to sleep." Without a smile or a flicker of emotion across her green eyes she rolled over, pulling the covers protectively around her.
Xena had watched for a moment, saddened, her eyes tracing the reddened mark across her friend's shoulder. Filled with a dozen different emotions, each shouting for her attention, she rose and left.
Gabrielle slept the rest of the day and soundly all through the night. The next day she was up on her feet bright and early, although she said very little, and after some hesitation she ate all of the breakfast which Xena provided. Xena desperately wanted to do something, to move – a ride, a swim, a run – but if she went out she couldn't be sure that Gabrielle would still be there when she returned. Her young friend didn't trust her, not yet, and Xena couldn't blame her.
Needing some kind of distraction from all this, from the plans and possibilities and anxieties chasing each other around in her mind, the warrior sunk down into her hot tub and scooped soapy water over her shoulder. Having this on tap was one pleasure of having a permanent home that she had forgotten all about. It was luxurious.
Hearing a movement behind her, Xena turned. Gabrielle brought in a pile of clean washing and set it down on a chair, pausing for a beat when she noticed Xena. "I'm sorry, I didn't…"
"Hey, Gabrielle, c'mere." Xena beckoned her over. "Wash my back, will you? I can't reach. Here -" She held out a sponge.
Gabrielle didn't move for a long moment. Her face was so often blank now, it contrasted so starkly with the girl Xena knew, whose expression was always animated, her movements always lively. Coming to her decision, Gabrielle knelt by the edge of the tub and squeezed the sponge thoughtfully in her fist. "Thought you said I wasn't your slave."
Xena felt the sponge on her back. "That's not how I meant it." She pulled her hair over her shoulder, out of the way. "You wash my back, then I'll do yours for you." The hand paused, and she knew she'd gotten somewhere with that. "Do you remember last night?" She pressed.
"Yes," Gabrielle said slowly, watching how the bubbles streamed over Xena's shoulders. "Yes, I remember."
"If I thought of you as a slave, would I have treated you like that?" She turned to face Gabrielle, who looked down into her eyes and didn't seem to know what to say. "I'm your friend. Come on, hop in."
Gabrielle backed off. "I've already bathed today."
"Have you?" Xena frowned. "I didn't see you."
Gabrielle gestured vaguely behind her. "In the yard…"
"Gabrielle, it's freezing!" Xena exclaimed, horrified. "I know sometimes we don't have a choice, but there's no need here. Look, I'll wash your hair for you."
Xena had to wait: Gabrielle didn't move for a long time, staring at the older woman in stupefaction and apparently weighing up her options. All her actions were slow and she was confident of nothing. Just when Xena thought she would never budge, she rose and nervously undressed, although nothing in her eyes changed.
"Great." Xena grinned. "There, how's that?" She took the small hand to steady her friend.
"It's… it's so warm…" Gabrielle lowered herself in the water and sculled her hands across its surface. Steam rose up and caressed her, going some way to thaw the ice that now seemed permanently lodged at her core.
"I'm glad you like it." Xena watched her, enjoying the moment. Gabrielle's eyes were on the water. Slowly, as Xena studied her, her expression changed, grew harder, more determined. At length, Gabrielle lifted her head and approached Xena. Delighting the warrior, she moved closer and, finally, pressed their bodies together.
Grinning with joy at this victory, Xena put her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders and squeezed her suffocatingly, loving her. It was so good to have Gabrielle close to her again, having her trust, not having to go though this alone. So good, infact, that it took Xena a moment to realise how stiff Gabrielle was in her embrace, how guarded, her arms unmoving by her sides. Xena drew back. "What is it?" Cold green eyes, unflinching and unafraid, levelled on hers. Xena pulled back further. "What's the matter?"
"Go on. Get on with it." Gabrielle told her.
"With what?" Something told Xena to let go. "What's wrong? I don't understand."
"I see now why you bought me, it took me a while, but I understand." When Xena said nothing, taken aback, the girl continued. Her voice was level, matter of fact. "I've heard about it. Although I didn't know that women…" A slight frown crossed her features, and she shrugged. "It can't be any worse than being with Krykus, and his men. I told you before, I don't fight."
The warrior stumbled back a little further, shaking her head. All at once she understood, and saw how her kindness had been misinterpreted by this woman whose life had taught her to expect the worst from everyone. Guilt, doubled and renewed, slugged her in the belly, and she knew she didn't have long before all the tears and rage spilt out. She had to be alone when that happened.
"Gabrielle," Xena said carefully, "I'm your friend. What you do is your choice now, no one owns you. You and I are equal, and there are no strings." She had the girl's absolute attention, those eyes suddenly open and receptive. Xena gently cupped her face with a hand. "No strings." A small nod. "I'm gonna take Argo down to the market. You stay here as long as you want." Needing to move or go mad, Xena climbed out of the tub and grabbed up a towel to dry herself. Her back to the smaller woman, she was almost dressed by the time Gabrielle spoke.
"Uh ha?" Xena turned.
Gabrielle was leaning on the edge of the tub, her fingers worrying the tiles. "Thank you for the clothes." She gave the tiniest smile, which changed her whole expression, and was infectious. "They're beautiful."
Xena nodded, knowing she was smiling too. She had to go for a hard ride, then, driving Argo through the hills around Amphipolis. It worked off some of her pent up energy. She didn't know what to do about her situation, and worse, she didn't even know what outcome she desired. If she drew blood in anger, Lyceus would return to his grave, and the weight of her past crimes would settle once more on her shoulders. If she did nothing, all that had happened to Gabrielle in her short, miserable life would be her fault. Xena rode until Argo was spent, then returned via the small village market, wanting to pick up supper.
It was growing dark by the time she got back inside. The doors were unbolted, and both women knew that Gabrielle could have fled at any time. The significance of the girl's continued presence was not lost on Xena. She set her bundle of food down. "I meant for you to rest," She nodded toward the mop Gabrielle was holding, "But thank you."
The blonde woman, her hair shiny and straighter for being washed, squeezed the wooden pole between her hands. "I did rest, I sat in your garden." It was a small, modest space, but there was a bench, built one summer by Toris, and a few trees. "I picked some flowers, I hope you don't mind." Gabrielle touched at a small bunch of delicate white and pink flowers, standing in a pottery vase on the mantelpiece.
Xena came over to look. "They're very pretty."
"Yeah." Gabrielle agreed proudly.
"I got us some supper, why don't you wash up and I'll get it ready."
The blonde woman smiled bashfully, glancing down at a grubby mark on her hand. "Okay." She reached down for the tin bucket at her feet, but the movement seemed to cause a shot of pain somewhere around her middle and she stopped abruptly. Her fingers curled in the air above the bucket handle, and her eyes closed for a moment before she straightened.
Xena was immediately alert. "What?" She tried to analyse the girl's intent expression. "What hurts, what is it?" She reached out, but Gabrielle shook her head and ducked away.
"Nothing, it's nothing." She stooped down again and grabbed determinedly for the handle. Her muscles tightened to pull up the load, but the pain that stabbed through her made her drop it, water slopping on the wooden floor as the tin settled. "Aww!" It was a tiny yell that she tried to stifle, and her clenched fists automatically went to cradle her belly.
"Gabrielle -" Xena moved closer and curled her fingers around the cool wrists. "Take it easy." She pushed the bucket aside with her boot. "What is it, tell me," She insisted.
"I can't go through that again, I can't!" When Gabrielle lifted her head her cheeks were suddenly wet and flushed, and her sentence ended with a sob, moving Xena immeasurably. "I swear, it's too much!" She pulled her hands angrily from Xena's and rubbed them fitfully over her abdomen. Sobs broke out of her, loud and pain filled.
"Gabrielle…" Distraught, Xena traced her hands over the hot cheeks.
"It's always the same," Gabrielle continued hurriedly through her tears, pulling in ragged breaths, "Always worse after a few days. Like cramp, but…" She groaned, doubled over. "It's so bad this time."
"Gods, Gabrielle…" Agonised, Xena did the only thing she felt would help them both, and put her arms around Gabrielle. "Hold on," She insisted into the girl's ear, "Hold on to me." She felt cold hands hesitantly moving up her back, then clinging on to her clothes. "Good girl, now listen," She cradled Gabrielle's head in an arm, stroking blonde hair soothingly. "Are you bleeding?" Xena had to ask, whispering the words into silky hair. Gabrielle's head, pressed into her shoulder, gave a shake. "Okay, okay," Xena squeezed the smaller woman to her, overwhelmed by her own guilt and the misery of seeing Gabrielle unhappy. The rasping sobs stung at her with almost physical pain. "Don't cry, it'll be all right." Xena kissed the temple under her chin. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry." She felt her own tears, cool and salty, and quickly rubbed them away.
"That's one time too many," Calmer and drained, Gabrielle lifted her head from the warrior's warm body. "I don't think I can…"
"I know." Xena didn't let go, instinctively rocking Gabrielle in her arms.
The girl looked up at her, her nose running and her eyes red. "You're crying…"
"Don't worry," Xena managed a smile, trying to be reassuring.
"You're crying over me?" Disbelieving, Gabrielle reached up to trace a finger across the wet path over Xena's cheek. She shook her head in wonder, her expression more open than Xena had ever seen it here. "Xena, who are you…?"
"Hush now." Not willing to answer that complex question right now, the warrior pulled her friend back into a hug, enjoying the trust and the contact. She never could have predicted how much she'd miss it. "Don't think about anything." Automatically Xena tucked her hand beneath Gabrielle's hair to rub soothingly at the back of her neck. It would relax tense muscles, and was somehow more intimate an action than it sounded.
Almost immediately Gabrielle gasped and lifted her chin from its resting place on Xena's shoulder, pushing herself back cat-like against the fingers. "Gods, that feels so… so familiar." She closed her eyes to remember. "Perhaps my mother…" Giving up, she settled back into the cuddle, surrendering all resistance and taking the risk of giving this incredible woman absolute trust.
Xena swallowed. Was it just coincidence, or did a tiny part of Gabrielle somehow remember her? Was there the smallest connection? If Gabrielle ever did recognise what had happened, see what Xena's actions had done to her, how could she possibly ever forgive?
"Come sit down, I'll fix us supper. The pain's better?" Xena gave Gabrielle a squeeze then let go, just holding one arm supportively.
"Yes." Gabrielle nodded and went to the double seated, cushioned bench which Xena indicated.
"Good, now sit down – yeah, that's it." The warrior gingerly set Gabrielle down, then took up her bundle and went to the dresser to find plates. She needed to turn her back for a moment, to collect herself, to hide part of herself away. She set out her acquisitions equally between the wooden dishes: a hunk of bread, orange and deep red berries, a little hard cheese, and some dried chicken.
When she returned, setting down their meal, Gabrielle had dried her eyes on her sleeve and gazed up at Xena with a naked wonder that the warrior felt she ill deserved. Xena sat too and smiled at her friend, sensing that she had something more to say.
"You've been very kind," Gabrielle said at length, absently scratching at a healing scrape on her arm. "Do you mind if… can I…?" She shuffled closer, hesitated, then decisively put her arms around Xena's shoulders, hugging her innocently. Surprised, Xena laughed and nestled her arms around Gabrielle's small torso, holding her. "Feels…" The blonde woman mumbled something largely indistinguishable into Xena's shoulder, her hands clasped behind the warrior's neck.
"What's that?" Xena chuckled, rubbing the soft back under her hands. Despite her pleasure at Gabrielle's warm approach, she had to restrain herself, aware of the girl's vulnerability. It always surprised her, but she had inexorably grown to be very affectionate with her Gabrielle, and when they cuddled it felt natural to kiss the bard's hair and stroke her cheeks.
Gabrielle relaxed a moment more then sat up, keeping her hands on Xena's arms and looking a little bashful. "I'll help you with your plan."
"My what?" In truth, Xena had forgotten all about her non-existent plan.
"You said you had something you needed to do and you wanted my help," Gabrielle clarified. "I don't know what it is, but I'll help you." Adamant, Gabrielle tried a smile.
"Thanks," Xena returned it, but felt little mirth. The Furies weren't going to fall for some ill-conceived excuse or bargain.
The girl looked down to her plate for a moment. "I don't understand why you've been so nice. You have your plan, it's not my business, I respect that." She took the dish onto her lap and selected some pale cheese. "I want you to know I'm grateful. You're an angel, Xena. You're like an angel to me." That said, she began on her meal.
Xena smiled sadly and watched her, aware of the irony in Gabrielle's new label for her. Realising she was staring, she ate her own food. There was silence between them, the room dim and warm, the fire crackling occasionally. It was so like their old life, spending nights together by a campfire, yet everything of importance to Xena was different.
When Gabrielle was finished she wiped berry juice from her chin and settled back against the cushions. It was the most peaceful environment she had been in for years, and with Xena's encouragement she closed her eyes and quickly fell into a doze. When she slept the frown disappeared and she looked as youthful and innocent as the other Gabrielle.
Xena sat watching her, her soul torn with indecision. She had no right to continue this life, to put Gabrielle through slavery and rape and Lila's death. Lyceus was precious, but at least he had had a chance at life: this poor girl never had. Xena reached out to stroke a lock of blonde hair back from Gabrielle's eyes. "Gabrielle…" She whispered so as not to wake her friend. "You know that I love you, don't you? You're the most important thing to me, you have to believe that. This is all my fault. I have to put it right. I'm doing this for you, I hope you understand someday. I love you." She leaned forward and gently kissed Gabrielle's forehead as she slept.
That done, Xena stood and went outside, quietly closing the wooden door behind her. It was almost completely dark, and the wind had gotten up. Amphipolis was deserted, so Xena strode undisturbed into the hills, grim but determined. She had had to make worse decisions in her life, she told herself, had faced more fearsome tasks.
Once she reached the highest plain, she stopped and knelt, illuminated by the insipid moon. In order to return to her old life she had to draw blood in anger. No excuses, no get-out clause, just hot, fresh blood. She had tried killing animals – a chicken and a deer – but to no avail. The people of Amphipolis were simple and friendly: the only person she hated was Krykus, and he was long gone.
The only person, Xena thought, except herself. Her actions had caused Gabrielle's misery, and she despised herself for her selfishness and greed. She wanted her own life back, and, even more so, wanted Gabrielle to be the gentle, peaceful girl she knew, who saw good in everyone and who was light in the darkness. It wasn't all that hard a decision to make, really.
Xena's fingers went down to her boot and pulled out the small dagger she had stowed there. Allowing herself to believe that she could see Gabrielle's face in the moon high above her, her arm came up, and in one abrupt movement the small blade went across her throat.
The warrior's body slumped onto the grass, blood flowing quickly at first then slowing to a steady ebb. Death was no sacrifice if it meant returning to the old life. Her demons would follow her, but so be it: to Xena it was a small price for an angel.
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